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Announcing my career plans over Sunday lunch


The influence of science fiction
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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The other big influence in my childhood before I became a scientist, but obviously made me a scientist in the end, was science fiction. I read Wells, I read a man called Stapledon, who people don't read nowadays... wrote an extraordinary book called Last and First Men, in about 1932 or something, which has an atom bomb, it has a... the oil crisis destroying civilisation, it has giant brains, it has the breeding of new human beings who will be able to build civilisation and so on. And I remember reading this book and getting fascinated by genetics, because it's full of the idea of how do you change human nature by genetic means. And I guess, ultimately, that's why I became a geneticist. But there's a twist to the story, which I feel I ought to get on record, that I... much later, oh, quite recently, I was reading a set of short stories by Arthur C Clarke. And in this... there's an introduction by Clarke about his own childhood, and he describes how he read this book... this same book and how it blew his mind - he's a couple of years older than me, by the way - and how he... it made him a science fiction writer. But the fascinating thing is that he got it out of the local public library, and so did I. We got it out of the same public library, we got it out of the local public library in Minehead, in Somerset. And I thought, now, whichever librarian put that book on the shelf, you know, he's got a lot to answer for. But science fiction had a big influence of introducing me to science.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: Last and First Men, Minehead, Somerset, Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, HG Wells, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C Clarke

Duration: 1 minute, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008